I, Elspeth Blake

No, that’s not my surname. You’ll have worked out real one by now. But I’m showing solidarity with the film I’ve just seen – I, Daniel Blake, Ken Loach’s latest instalment in the Cathy Come Home mould. More humorous I think than that 1960s docudrama, but I hope that this feature film has the same social impact.

I noted that this film about the welfare system chooses to base its story in an inner city, round a manually skilled older man with a medical condition, and a single mum. People we can feel truly on side with without any controversy.

But they’re not the only examples of those hit by state support’s cruelties.

These issues are found in the country too, and with people you might not guess. I’ve been in rooms where we talk about ‘the poor’ as those out there, statistics in particular postcodes. But they were in the room too. I was one of them.

Katie in the film takes 2 years to get a real home – and nowhere near the place she’s from. If you’re not in the vulnerable group of old or young, ill or disabled or with children, support of any kind can be even harder to get.

What struck me is the coldness of the system, the attempt at breaking you or resocialising you. Not just you the claimant, but those behind the desk.

Those in officialdom have lost their humanity.

They need to regain it – their ability to think, to feel, to question. This film is a good start.

I’ve often said that those in various corporate roles don’t understand any other kind of work and are almost robotic in their adherence to rules and shocking in their stupidity.

Are they chosen for those qualities or do they come after the years of employment in government offices? They are removed from the public – call centres, automated phone messages, PO box addresses, the internet with preset answer boxes that won’t send until you put in what they want. Quite often these decision makers (‘adjudicator’ was thought too big a word by the DWP, though it remains in the tax office and ombudsman) are also unnamed, as are trustees of grants for those in need, such as Charis – who have no understanding of the grace of their name. As I pointed out.

I have my own story to tell, but I don’t yet feel ready to tell it here. Of course, I have another which I have told. I also began a TV series script on a comedic satire on the world of work. My Near Professor Sally Gababa is in a different situation to Ken Loach’s Daniel and Katie – an academic misfit of middle years without children or illness, or not one that’s understood – which makes her life such a struggle.

I still recall the name of the jobcentre staff I lampoon.

I do remember nice ones too, and I’m glad that I, Daniel Blake shows one. There are those that helped make the film.

Rather than feeling depressed, I felt energised: The people on the street in solidarity with Daniel when he sprays his appeal on the wall. The packed cinema. And whether those people me had ever suffered what Daniel had – and you can’t tell or guess demographics – they came. They saw. And they clapped. They’re on side.

We need a system that’s likewise, where appeals are not rigged (read PHSO – the true story for more on that), where citizenship doesn’t have to be earned in narrow ways, where we’re not valued for the taxable income we generate. Where we’re not to fit drop down menus and preset boxes. Where, as one staff said to me of my claim, we make free use of the form. Where staff too are not faceless and also support us instead of being a mindless, soulless bullying chain. Where we’re not graded on a point system, where we’re not intimidated and intruded into.

I like the idea of citizenship being about grace, not earning. It’s the theology I have and it’s also the society I believe in. Even those who support Citizens’ Income sometimes talk about deserving – ie fitting their patterns. But I want a world where ‘paying your way’ and rejecting charity are no longer signs of dignity and worthiness; where we don’t have to put our time into categories of work and leisure, living to do the former to deserve a little of the latter. Where we’re not justifying ourselves and our existence to another who won’t be challenged.

“I, Daniel, Elspeth, [your name]” is a statement of individuality, of personhood. As Daniel says, we are not a government given number or term for those who need to use the system; we are ourselves, and we are worthy.

And we look to those who really drain resources, and that’s not those at the benefit queue, but quite the other end of society. There’s far worse handouts and passive income (benefit claiming is not passive) than the dole.

Daniel Blake didn’t tell me anything much new. If you don’t know about the system, go and see it. If you’re in it, go. And if you judge those in it, go. And if you work in it, go.

But let there be a discussion that is wider than just the issues of the film and those I can touch on here. And let there be, as with Cathy Come Home, the sea change that is needed.

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Other self published authors’ wisdom

“We read to know we’re not alone… We write to know it…”

Yes I am quoting yours truly – though the first bit was from screenwriter William Nicholson.

It’s good to find other writers and those who also chose to self publish and give advice and support on that.

Joanne Phillips is generous with her advice, which you can read here. I hope you’ll also discover her books too.

She posted of another writer, Jan Ruth, who wrote a brilliant piece subverting the negative self publishing attitudes.

I’ll be sharing more of my own thoughts on this and the rest of the world soon

 

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Ombudsmen watchers and academia

Dear Dr Creutzfeldt

I have found your report of last December Critics of the ombudsman system: understanding and engaging online citizen activists regarding ombudsman watchers and would like to comment on it.

I am someone who has had many poor experiences of different ombudsmen over a long period.

I have several grave concerns with the study:

(i) It is taken on by an institution seen as much part of the establishment as the ombudsmen themselves – namely, Oxford University.

(ii) Your colleague is a former ombudsman employee

(iii) You “partner” with the PHSO, one of the most criticised ombudsmen

(iv) You had public money from a government funded council to look at government funded bodies; the Economic and Social Research Council has government staff (as well as business people) on its board, both of whose interests are vested in the status quo of ombudsmen

(v) You had to find watchers who were willing to attend a workshop – this may be seen as even a trap and many ombudsman whistleblowers would be wary of coming, especially given the above. Those who run watchers websites are a small proportion of those contributing to them or reading them, so this doesn’t feel very representative.

(vi) Your report is full of statements like “one said…”, “some felt…” – never anything substantial or specific. No cases and facts are mentioned.

 

(vii) Your remit was for the ombudsmen to understand how these groups work so that they can be “managed” and effectively, it’s implied, not allow them to interfere with the status quo, or “legitimacy”(para 2, p3).

 

Some comments on the summaries provided:

You summarise that the watchers “raise lack of clear themes”, yet in the same piece, note how detailed the watchers are in their ideas for ombudsman reform.

The watchers sites are full of details of cases and therefore strong first hand evidence of what is going wrong. Ombudsmen are a big part of so called just and equal society, publicly funded, so their abject failure should be of very great concern and a cause for immediate action.

I quote from p11 of your summary:

“Individual issues and unrealistic expectations. One participant (from a

scheme whose ombudsman watcher did not attend the workshop described

above) said there were no themes arising from the website concerned with his

organisation because it was focused on the personal experience of a single

individual. He said that as a result of the very individual nature of the criticisms

and the fact that these related to historic practices, there was little scope for

learning lessons in relation to possible service improvements.”

 

Why was this person’s views allowed to be recorded and take up half this section when they didn’t attend? Nothing here is substantiated. Of course the motivation to set up such sites is likely to be from personal experience; the high counts of hits shows that these resonate with a large number. What is the keenness to undermine the individual?

Perhaps the academic/social science aspect does not recognise individual experience, but it is that experience which is most poignant – the very real distress, suffering, anger, frustration, sense of not being heard, that there is no accountability and justice – is the heart of the problems that complainants have with ombudsman and with individuals have large organisations generally. The lack of humanity is one of the biggest criticisms.

That the ombudsmen felt that the effects of the watchers is ‘slight’ is really to be expected – it is in their interests to proclaim that these watchers do not do them any real damage.

‘Unrealistic expectations’ is a somewhat angering and again ironic response to the millions of people over a couple of decades who come to ombudsmen as the only reasonable way to fight their corner. They leave, some time later, with great frustration and disappointment.

As ombudsmen’s cases consist of individuals and small groups against large organisations, it is understandable that the people seek a champion. It seems that what actually is in place is a supporter of the large body that they have complained about.

I have known cases to be elongated which cause danger and even demise. I have seen one such case thrown out by an ombudsman for “insufficient suffering”!

I would like to ask if the researchers are aware of what it is like to bring a case to an ombudsman, the way the complaint process works, the responses of the ombudsman staff. The obtuseness or deliberate deflection and dishonesty is beyond belief. At every stage, the complainant is disadvantaged, controlled and kept at bay. I’d even say it’s deliberate dehumanising and demotivating.

Of course those who have not felt justice and closure will be unhappy, and yet you seem to agree that this somehow dilutes and disqualifies these complainants – who are the increasing majority.

This all seems to be missing from your study.

In your summary you took care to say “again this is not to suggest agreement with [the watchers’ critique” – implying, as throughout the piece, a greater solidarity with the ombudsmen.

Your summary spoke of ways that the watchers misunderstand the ombudsmen, yet it is far easier to level the opposite critique at this study, which discovers more about the people and workings of these groups. I note you speak of the “ombudsman community” – telling – but not of the watchers’ groups as a community.

Also, watchers are endeavouring to make grassroots changes as well as information and solidarity for the public; they are aiming for reform from outside, not within the ombudsman system, so that questions the rationale of the workshops.

I note this is one part of a three year funded project closing this year.

ADR is often not “alternative dispute resolution” for there is no sense of resolving for the individual, only an unsatisfying ending made by the other side. Those who attempt judicial review find further fault there – and those problems again lead back to ombudsmen.

This could’ve been an opportunity for change and scrutiny, but it really says little and feels on the side of the ombudsmen. I would like to ask that the remainder of your project and further research utilises the opportunity to reform and for a fairer society, not a reinforcement of the already unpalatable status quo.

Please note that this is an open letter.

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Greenbelt and me and that book of mine

Today is the official start of a festival known very much to a those of a certain Christian ilk. It’s been running over 40 years around various parts of England, sometimes in the grounds of stately homes, sometimes on a racecourse.

In the words of something very close to me

“Greenbelt was devoid of the very things that put me off all other forms of Christian holiday. It had a firm focus on music and the experimental, was theologically liberal to the point of sometimes being shocking, and therefore attracted interesting people.”

Born at a similar time to the festival – which also began in the same county – I went to my first Greenbelt in 1990, in Northants, just as I was becoming old enough to be autonomous. It was a rebellious thing to do for someone of my background. My Dad’s response to my wish to go was “pass the vinegar”!

I came back shocked and recall writing to the festival’s chair and receiving a generic reply, including things that I hadn’t. Clearly many others had been unhappy too.

I can’t remember much about why – just that Greenbelt didn’t match my idea of Christianity. One reason that was its focus on social justice, not gospel spreading, and its toleration of issues like homosexuality. Ironies coming up.

Curiously one thing I do recall complaining about (for his a book called “Cleaning the Bog and other spiritual gifts”) was a writer I embraced later on. I was reading the late Mike Yaconelli’s book “Dangerous Wonder” just last night. His talks involved the biggest queues of the festival, yet he was moved every year, and surprised, fearing that next year, they wouldn’t come. Perhaps I find his book a little juvenile now, with its stories of waterbombing and other pranks, but I love his spirit – real, passionate living, and a God who is much more into loving us than berating us and getting it right.

It took me 6 years to try Greenbelt again – now a postgraduate, a little broader of mind and less easily shocked. This time I had a little epiphany – one I couldn’t share with my housemate and I felt that her and her church – who’d tutted at me for going to GB – weren’t right, and I made some large and sudden lifestyle decisions because of that.

As a composing musician, the music at Greenbelt was important; a highlight was seeing Iona at the only full band gig of theirs I ever attended. But the book tent, people, the ideas and new ways to worship were also of interest.

I went back the next year, but felt that the mud and the lank hair and skank feeling of no proper washing outdid the things I enjoyed. I vowed I would not camp again.

Then Greenbelt moved – further from me, but into new student halls of residences for the over 25s – happily an age I’d recently passed – and onto the tarmac of Cheltenham racecourse. I enjoyed discovering Cheltenham – my first spa town – and having a town close enough to take a break from the long weekend of festivalling, which can get quite intense and insular. Spiritually, it still felt appealed.  At last, Greenbelt and I were a best fit, although it was smaller and less atmospheric than its Northants days.

Now that Safe Space for LGB Christians felt different.

I’m not really sure why I didn’t return for a while, but in 2007, I was living close enough to attend Greenbelt for a day. I started calling my spirituality Glastonbury rather than Canterbury. I was going to an offshoot of the latter communion who didn’t approve of the former. I was no longer in the Christian music loop – and by that I mean, contemporary bands – and found most solace in a tent of contemplation, and a spiritual advisor. I listened to Yaconelli’s son and felt that whilst the voice was recognisable, finding the ghost of the father through him wasn’t going to happen. Nor did Mike’s own books work so well for me now.

I now cared very about social justice and I embraced the inclusion that Greenbelt showed, but it strangely felt that it, not I, was more conservative. It had taken steps back to towards it more evangelical roots while I’d pole vaulted from mine. We had passed each other like comets, riding together for a time, and veering into disparate directions.

I wasn’t sorry to leave and to explore Cheltenham. I felt that I’d be unlikely to go gain – especially as Greenbelt left that site and reverted to camping.

So why is Greenbelt something I’m writing about now, except that it’s now happening?

Because those Cheltenham visits inspired scenes in my new novel, all about that Safe Space, those seminars where evangelical and liberal meet, where social justice and faith come together. It’s the final chapter.

I think it may be for me and Greenbelt. I approached them to share the novel – naturally – as I’d not only given them a few thousand words of space in it at the most crucial point, but its being all about the kind of things its attendees care about, such as modern church life and those that are a bit different.

But I found that the social justice they preach wasn’t being practised. The book tent has a contract to exclusively sell books on the site and it wants 50% of the cover price to sell yours – though it excludes self published ones when they’ve little space. I pointed out that most books don’t have that cut to spare and causes the author and publisher – which are both me – who has spend perhaps years at their own expense, to make a loss. I was asked to send, at my expense, a free copy to the team for a possible social media mention. A 40 year old festival commanding £150 a ticket for tens of thousands, asking a new self published author who’s been in financial struggle to send a book for them to consider a tweet? And that they were too busy to talk more.

Hence I’m not at Boughton House near Kettering this weekend and may not be again.

But I do hope some festivallers – past and present – might enjoy relieving those Cheltenham years and joining in my fictional weekend at the pivotal point of other Elspeth’s journey.

You don’t know what I mean, and you’d like to?

Then go to http://www.parallel-spirals.webs.com.

More about the fairness of publishing will be appearing on this site.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I chose to self publish

I feel a little defensive – or that I at least need to explain. And some of me is cross about that, and that I have spent longer in awards entry covering letters and in interviews on why I’m self published than what the story is about.

But I wanted to tell you all, because it’s not only a choice, it’s a statement, the nearest that a pacifist gets to a battle cry.

Because I want to change things.

I want to bring Fair Trade to the book industry and subvert the current model.

Firstly – I self published because

I WANT TO TAKE PUBLISHING BACK INTO AUTHOR’S HANDS

And secondly, to show

WE DON’T NEED ANYONE’S PERMISSION TO PUBLISH

anymore than other businesses need permission to set up shop and start fulfilling their dreams.

Then there was those stats – two I put together:

8% of submissions to agents and publishers don’t get rejected and if you get through that tiny hole you keep 8% of the profits

So that means that not even JK Rowling is rolling in royalties as much as her gargantuan book success would suggest. (JK Rowling is someone I admire – for her journey and spirit as much as her writing).

And other famous names are needing other supporting work, or struggling.

And the less famous names aren’t doing so well at all. They probably have a day jobs or claim welfare.

And I felt: why is this accepted – that writers are poor?! And that someone else takes over 90% of the earnings for the work that they have by far put the most into?

I will write about shops in another post, but there are issues with the size of their slice – one that may mean I skip trying to sell that way.

But shops and libraries and wholesalers are stuffy about self pubbers.

We’re rejects. We’re not real, serious authors, they say. And even if you’re local, there’s no reason for us to take your book.

I heard an independent shop owner say that publically. Then he told his own story.

Analysis: he gave up on his own writing dream, and wants to squash other people’s.

He wants to pour out the tough love of failure and relinquishment that someone tipped over him. I really hope to see him in print one day. But I hope in the meantime, he stops crushing others who are already.

As I’ll share more later, sending away loyal customers who are also writers and small publishers is not how to continue their custom, and perhaps not their friends’ either. Most of us are in touch with others like us, and we share experiences.

So I’ve not yet allowed any shop or library the pleasure of turning me down. I am wondering if I shall. I’ll speak more about this and whether it’s worth getting an ISBN later.

So if you’re wondering – did I not get my fill of rejections when trying to get published?

Well, I got a few, but I never sent out my work that often. What I learned was that they can take ages, lose your work (Canongate – that was the first place I tried), and not feed back. So you don’t learn, and I also felt it was just a case of taste.

I’ve also had many affirming comments about my work, and I knew I could write, without exterior validation – that’s one of the themes and messages of the novel. So it’s often not a quality issue with agents and publishers, but a “dare I take a risk”. I’m learning that those risks are taken less, that feedback is minimal, and that agents and publishers no longer dig out diamonds. They want cut and sparking and ready to wear jewels – but you still have to fit their ring. After the honing and publishing I’d done, I didn’t want to do any more cutting for anyone’s else’s ring thank you.

Then there is the trust issue with agents and editors. I’d love to think that they all are sagacious and have my best interests at heart. But they don’t always know what’s best and they are often thinking of the market and what they can make money from.

So it means that the perceived market shapes what we can express and read.

And that is capitalism at its worst. And like much of capitalism, it’s based on fear, and conversely, seeing what caused the recessions – it’s risk adverse. It’s taking out all the adventure and putting money first.

It’s not just the publishers and agents – I think it’s ultimately the shops, who have shrunk their range with their bookseller’s duties and increasingly centralised.

So it isn’t just the self published who are having difficulty in being taken by shops (and libraries). It’s small and anything deemed specialist publishers, or even new titles from something established.

It’s also space based – shops and libraries don’t have infinite shelves, but the universe of virtual and home publishing does. Again, brings in capitalism’s old friend, competition, jostling for space and attention…something which self publishing can subvert into sharing space, not squeezing out those around you.

So might I, days on from my book becoming publically available, be enjoying greater sales and a sense of validity if I had found an agent?

For a dark moment, sitting in a conventional bookshop full of conventionally published titles, it was easy to feel “They’ve all got agents” – do I know that? And they’ve all got less than 10% of the cover price, and perhaps not a very big advance.

Perhaps they had to organise a launch themselves too. Marketing departments in publishing houses seem to be proportionally active to how well they predict you’ll do. When I learned that I as a new author was likely to get the marketing equivalent of the theatrical release of a foreign art house film, I felt all the more that I would stop sending out my work to agents. So it would be self fulfilling as to how well I did, and I’d be constricted by someone else’s judgment, and quickly given up on after a few tweets and half hearted leafleting shots at buyers, and then they’d move on.

If I was conventionally published, they’d have all the rights. They could decide when to take the book out of print and when to reduce to clear. They could decide the cover and put pressure on to change aspects which mattered to me, such as title, names, or cut important points. They could sell rights to a film company and I could easily lose my twin dream of writing the script – for my work was conceived for the screen, and is also adapted for the stage. And new authors are unlikely to stipulate that they must be involved in the lucrative movie. I’d be expected to sign away and stand back.

It may be like handing over your kids for someone else to bring up and then seeing them when they’d come of age, with hardly any visiting rights.

But as publisher, I can withhold rights and find someone that I want to work with, not for.

As it is, I feel I can say like a film director who also wrote, produced and perhaps starred:

A novel by Elspeth Rushbrook.

I designed the cover, using my own images. I typeset it all. I edited it. And it’s how I want it.

I find it liberating, not blamemaking that any faults are mine too, for I can change them; they are in my power, not someone else’s who imposed on me.

I don’t even know if I’d want an agent and publisher now. I enjoyed doing all this myself. I know I’ll want to do it for my other work.

It’s like being happy being single. If someone extra special appeared in your life, you may get married, but you’d have to be sure it was an enhancing partnership, and not a pairing for social expectation, or a dependency.

Really, I’m just moving with the wheel that’s already turning – the one that began with self publishing, then went to what we’d now call vanity – the author paid the publisher a fee – and now autonomous publishing is back. And I’m on top of the wheel, hoping that it is a revolution that works for all, wherever on the wheel you choose to ride.

 

 

 

 

 

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The day my life has been leading up to

Sorry, Middlemarch and Robin Hood, you’ve been queue jumped by the most significant day in my life.

Until now, I have hidden my surname from you, but because of what I am about to share with you, I realise I have to come out.

This day, I am a published author.

Last autumn, I asked people around the globe to help me get my wings.

I said it was time to fly.

Now I am flying.

It’s a day I’ve waited 25 years to see.

I feel that literally my life – which is somewhat longer than 25 years – has been leading towards this moment. The things I’ve done, people I’ve met; my journey of faith and personal development.

I’ve likened it to a birth – for it feels like a first born that I want to hold up like the cub in the Lion king, and also a marriage and a business launch all in one.

It is a day I want to bask in – and with the temperature – it’s hard to do little other than bask. So bask I shall.

Here is my book: http://www.parallel-spirals.webs.com

I shall have much more to say about writing – as well as the rest of the world, anon.

 

 

 

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1549 Kett’s Rebellion

During my Robin Hood phase, and unable to get to Sherwood Forest, I went to Nottinghamshire, and then to woods where other rebels gathered. Those woods have just been the backdrop to a play on the anniversary of that gathering, in Norwich.

And again, I’m led to decisive historic moments and battlers for justice. I haven’t forgotten Eliot’s Dorothea and Will – the more gentle kind of battlers – and I’ll pop up my article on their story shortly. I’m also returning to that famous forest so they’ll be more about Robin et al too.

But let me stay with Robert Kett – perhaps a name you don’t know, unlike Robin, or Boudicca, or Braveheart – our best known British freedom fighters, who’ll need little explanation, wherever you are reading this from. But Kett has much in common with all these. Perhaps he is Norfolk’s Robin. And let me link Kett, as the play did, with our current climate.

I’m not going to analyse the pantomime-like play, but its theme. The oft sung song reminded us that although the setting was nearly 500 years ago, it ‘could be any time’ – and ours. The mayor was doing a David Cameron impression. The mean ‘nobs’ all from the same school administered cuts to welfare and bullied plebs in a very familiar way.

*

The piece of news that I’m most thinking about from the last few days is the police shootings in America. I feel a little intrepid to comment, for it’s emotive and needs to be expressed well.

What I will say is that the  events at the Dallas protest turned the focus from the shootings by the police to the shootings of the police. I note that there was 1 officer for every 8 people at that demo, which is heavy. And that the demo which followed involved the police using smoke against the people.

The brutality of the killings – and sorry ‘fatal shootings’ won’t do – and the disproportion of the police’s reaction to the situations – over motor offences! –  has made me livid. I join those (isn’t that the whole world?) calling for justice and the curtailing of armed police and this heavy, ugly way of dealing with the public. A public who pay for the services of those who should be keeping us safe – but instead are unjust instruments of the establishment, and from whom we can be in danger.

I think many of us must feel that our growing resentment for the police, wherever we are, has been augmented by these shocking not even lone incidents.

I abhor that black people were the victims of these killings. It wasn’t hard to learn the names of the most recent ones – Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. But I noted that the day before, two more American young men were killed by the police, yet they are less talked about – I struggled to find their names. These both were from Latino heritage. It is significant that they too aren’t white – but also that the African Americans garnered the greatest attention.

Surely ‘Black Lives Matter’ should be ALL lives matter? I hope that’s a given.

There’s also a lesser known “Brown Lives Matter” movement.

I felt a huge de ja vu last night at the play, watching the king’s forces rush to stop the rebels in Norwich, who were slaughtered in battle or executed. Like the events of recent days, the aggrieved side, however we might understand their aggrievement, did things to their aggressors which I couldn’t condone.

But I did note that Kett’s army took England’s second city for a time. I know Bristol and York will want to squeal at this point ‘We were England’s second city!’ Can’t we share that title? But isn’t the point not a petty division (watch for those) but the empowering thought that people can hold a major city from the establishment.

Did the people of Norwich in 1549 feel any safer with the mob at the helm; was that their definition of democracy?

When I look at all those iconic historic symbols of independence, there’s a sadness that their effects were not only curtailed, but that were are still facing those issues, centuries later.

But did they fail? Should we give up trying to change the fact that, as the chorus sung last night “the many serve the few” and that the rich and powerful’s minority interest continue to crush everyone else?

No and no I do not. I do take hope from the fact that these names of freedom fighters are remembered and commemorated. We’re not cheering the mayors and earls who routed Kett’s group, we remember him.

Last night, we lit a beacon on a hill overlooking the city to not only remember the 3000 killed and hundreds hung in Kett’s rebellion, but all those who have struggled against oppression and still do – and feel under it. It was an exciting moment, to see the flames sweep in way I’ve never seen fire do before, to join with cheers and a banner.

Although not mentioned, we were asking and committing to the kind of world that Robin Hood, Boudicca, Braveheart and Robert Kett stood for coming into being. We are wanting a world which is against austerity, against unfair private ownership, and where the brutality of police and other law enforcers (what a phrase!) and the prejudice behind these recent incidents is history. We wish for justice and for reform – the sort that Will Ladislaw of Middlemarch wanted, the peaceful kind.

There was irony that I realised that no-one other than those at the play could see the beacon, despite its prominent position. Even knowing where to look, as I left Kett’s Heights I could just make out a tiny orange glow between trees.

It was also ironic that given this was a play about power to the people, the city council had to give permission for the beacon to be lit. A council that has many failings – lack of accountability and support to the vulnerable and providing basic reliable services; making heavy licensing laws which involve police in civil liberty abuses – but which also hung its flag at half mast for the recent homophobic shootings in Orlando.

Robert Kett, like Robin of Locksley, was one of the rich who instead of squashing the poor rebelling at his gate, joined and led them. In the play, the Mayor changed sides and opinions.

Out of the many warrior princes and princesses I admire, there is one who comes to mind who insisted on never killing, never using unreasonable force, and who stopped wars with love. She saw that forgiveness and change were more powerful than routing enemies. She saw too that the most powerful way to create change was through mind changing – and I add, heart changing.

I refer to my last post and that wonderful quote of Caroline Lucas, ‘where hope is powerful than hate’ – even when we feel we have a just cause; and that healing and uniting communities is more important than demarcation of difference, even self defining; brothers (and sisters) before otherness.

And as Kett’s county’s police motto says – we all need to feel our police’s priority is us.

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EU Exodus: “Hope is more powerful than hate”

It’s no accident that I’ve been exploring stories about times of change in British history on the eve of the referendum on Britain’s remaining in the European Union.

My initial response to the news that the vote to leave came top was not a pleased one.

I made my own mind up about why I wanted to stay, eschewing the manipulative fear and fiscal based arguments.

Economy is not the most important factor for me. Its prioritisation is behind much of what is wrong in our world. But unlike most on the left, I don’t see a single nationalised system as the way to run a country instead. I will put forward my alternative another time.

I voted to stay to stop our own government being its highest authority. I want to ensure that the articles of the Europeans Human rights act remain in force here. I want there to be somewhere to appeal to about our flawed court system. I want a decision for good to affect a continent – and one that is likely to be noticed by other countries too. I also want to enjoy a close and free relationship with other nations.

The Socialist Worker spoke in favour of leaving, but with a different voice to the often xenophobic and naïve and uncouth cheer on the extreme right. I find the SW a naïve and emotive voice, but it is sometimes interesting to read. It balanced the disappointment with the vote’s outcome of those who ought to be part of its family, but who the socialists often shun.

The Social Worker points out what Europe has done wrong and claims that this leave vote gives us a chance for change. The Greens point out what Europe has done right and what might be achieved with its reform.

I read some papers outside of my country to see what they said about today’s news. I’d enjoyed the German Der Spiegel before (eg re the Prism revelations) but today, this supposed quality paper from a fellow European country felt gloomy. It spoke of nothing that either the Socialists or the Greens did, but about economy and how the pound has fallen, how we’re distant and shrinking…

The title of article was good –  “Fear and Loathing in Britain” – yes those emotions are behind much of the campaign and the voting ethos – and the reaction to the vote. But I do commend Caroline Lucas, Britain’s Green MP, for saying she wants a country “where hope is always more powerful than hate” – a speech that Will Ladislaw would have commended. The rest of her article was copied by the other Greens speaking today, but their wish for uniting division and their avowal that the rights the EU has given us must be protected is commendable.

I am angry that the Stop The War Coalition convoy of aid to Calais was largely prevented last weekend, on grounds of “state of emergency”, “terrorism” and “football hooliganism”. I find it disgusting that support for the crisis we’ve helped create is something that authorities want to resist. I do not want yesterday’s vote to support that mentality.

The vote result doesn’t have to mean immediate, or any action, and I believe what it means should be thought about, not pressured or held to, for it was ‘won’ by a small margin and the 4 million name signature petition which I signed shows how strong feeling is that this referendum does not reflect the people’s views. How did this vote come about – what forces were whipping it up? What does that simply yea or nay represent? Many see that general dissatisfaction is being shown, and that the oldest and currently leading party is in disequilibrium, which could open a way for a new balance.

As I continue my reviews of my latest reading and watching, I’ll be considering those decisive moments of votes that they represent in the light of this one.

This isn’t just a matter for Britain or Europe only. Distinctness is not an excuse for division, nor division a cause for divorce, detesting, damnation and despotism.

We need something very different, but I’ve not seen anyone offer it yet. As Will Ladislaw says, we want peaceful reform not extremism, for long held barriers to be eroded, and for a system that does not simply benefit the few and puts welfare before wealth.

And if you don’t know who Will Ladislaw is, read my next but one article to find out.

You may also want to read my earlier article – No axes, no strikes, listen to Hegel – which is relevant to today’s news.

 

 

 

 

 

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Middlemarch and Sherwood

What links a Lincoln green clad arrow pinger, a mine magnate’s niece who’s chased by horses and her teacher, and a bonnet wearing philanthropic clergyman’s wife?

If you’ve read the blurb to my novel, you’ll know that I like making unlikely comparisons. If you’ve read the rest of this blog, you will see more of them.

The answer to the first question is firstly geography – for they are all located in the East Midlands; secondly, literature and film; – and lastly – well off people fighting to support the cause of the poor.

Thus Sherwood and Eastwood and Middlemarch are not so far apart.

I wrote my thoughts on Eastwood’s famous son – and the escapades of Ursula Brangwen – on Good Reads.

The rest of this concentrates on Sherwood – whose forest’s inhabitants need no introduction – and the fictitious manufacturing town invented by George Eliot, filmed in Stamford.

I like to read and watch and visit in themes, so if you want to know what my days out to Nottinghamshire and Stamford (and elsewhere in the East Midlands) involved – read them here.

Robin Hood and Dorothea Brooke are further linked by the fact that they are in some ways superhuman archetypes. Robin is borderline superhero, and in some versions (such as 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood) he has a higher calling from a deity, the son of a god, the fulfilment of a long promised title: he is, as the theme song goes, The Hooded Man. (Does anyone else find the otherwise excellent Clannad’s keyboards tinny and dated?). Dorothea – ‘of the gods’ – is likened to not only famous mystic and theologian Theresa of Avila, but saints, angels and the Virgin Mary. (I ruefully acknowledge that Schmoop pointed that out to me).

Robin too has a special Mary in his all male band of called followers, who live rough and itinerant and give, in their way, good news to the poor and freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed… strange how closely Robin’s mission matches Isaiah 61, Jesus’ own self confessed mission statement. Robin descends from the higher echelons to save the people.

Dorothea also cares about the poor, about justice – and mercy – letting sheep stealers off fatal sentences, providing better homes for tenants, doing good with her money, such as supporting overlooked but genuine clergy and would be world changing doctors.

Both though are truly human as well as divine.

There is much in common with 1195 – the years leading to Magna Carter, 1832 – the Reform Bill – and now. All these are the cusp of a sea change  against long oppression and imbalance. Hence these stories keep coming round again. The 2006 BBC Robin Hood (with Jonas Armstrong) made explicit parallels to the middle eastern wars funded at the expense of the poor and where fair justice was dispensed with, and that there was no need to travel to Arab countries to see evil – “the real cancer is right here”.

Hence my satisfaction that seemingly disparate reading and watching material has a common thread.

I’ll talk more about Middlemarch in my next piece, but I wanted to round up by a final parallel which is more than pedantry.

It’s about accents in the TV versions.

In his otherwise excellent site Bold Outlaw, Allen W. Wright says that Kevin Costner’s infamously poor/non English accent in the 1994 Prince of Thieves film doesn’t matter, because we don’t know how people talked in Robin Hood’s day, and some say that the modern American accent is more likely than today’s English one.

As a North American, he would say that.

As an English person, I feel that Americans not adopting the accent of the characters they play is not only cultural laziness but symptomatic of America becoming a synecdoche for all the English speaking western world. If actors of other nationalities play an American part, they change their voice – but not in reverse. Many dramas exported to America are remade, or redubbed.

Only one Robin Hood so far has used the right accent for Robin, going by what we today recognise as Nottinghamshire, and that again is the 2006 BBC series with Richard Armitage.

All the others do what Middlemarch also did – as well as so many films. The rich have a British gittish queen’s English accent, and the serfs and villagers and tradesfolk have the general lazy west country bumpkin voice that I have moaned about so many times. It’s not even true of the West Country! It’s not how people in the Midlands speak. And that accent serves to delineate class via accent and associate the country one with being not only rustic but stupid, poor, ill educated, lower, subordinate.

Thus class – a distinction and divide that Robin and Dorothea are working to erase – is demarcated for yet another era, and that shorthand is perpetuated and spread across not only Britain but all the countries who watch our dramas.

I shall be back with more about Middlemarch (or truly, Lowick and Tipton) shortly.

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Going Off Austen

For quarter of a century, Pride and Prejudice has been my favourite book, and I have loved rewatching the BBC drama series over 15 years. So why am I considering taking it off my shelf?

I had previously believed it a truth universally acknowledged that anyone of literary taste admired Jane Austen. Like Jennifer Ehle, I first read Pride and Prejudice aged c12, and soon counted it my joint favourite work of fiction. So going off her now is like parting with a best friend of 24 years.

I had seen screen adaptations of nearly all Austen’s work. I started the novels of a few, but soon gave up on all but one. I guessed who Emma married on page 1, turned to the end to see if I was right, and decided I couldn’t be bothered with the middle. The one novel I loved is Pride and Prejudice, which I could reread effortlessly, and be made to laugh out loud.

I have just read one of those dreadful spin off sequels after which I decided to read the original book and watch the 1995 TV version. I am shocked and saddened at my own responses.

In this week’s re-reading, I found the writing to often be laborious; and Lizzie’s speeches to be as ponderous as Mary’s. I wonder about Mary being downplayed in the novel and on the screen, for she seems the only character bent on improving her mind and skill, yet she is often given a little role; whatever offering she does have is ridiculed. Lizzie is a snob, saying that pride is allowed where real superiority of mind exists. Yet no-one in Austen’s creation has it; for no-one is intellectual or learned, no-one speaks of anything lofty or world changing. Lizzie refuses to discuss books at a ball. She nor Darcy have any talents, and he can’t even play the piano. They do nothing to improve society; they do not ponder spiritual or philosophical matters. The upper classes are excessively dull and flat; for their conversation is about balls and partners, clothes and weather.

Jane Austen is observing a particularly narrow world and it again surprises me that her novels are so widely loved by those so outside of her class, and in such a different era. I call even her heroines and heroes vapid, shallow, judgmental. I cannot understand how Darcy is such a fantasy. I now think of Darcy as more akin to Rochester (my other favourite book that I left behind ten years ago) – a smouldering, uncontrolled passion; who is arrogant, pompous, and used to being obeyed, and whose supposedly wonderful act (to Wickham and Lydia) is more about throwing money and power and tidying loose ends then any act of benevolence. Matthew MacFadyen in the 2005 film seemed a kinder Darcy than any other.

For some years, my focus has been on Eliza rather than Darcy. As writer Andrew Davies says, we are all in love in Elizabeth, and I think that is true – whether we look at her as a love interest, friend, or role model. Eliza is not impressive on the page to me now, but she does come alive on the screen. Lizzie always is sparkling and never more so than when played by Jennifer Ehle. It is her almost alone that makes that famous adaptation shine.

The 1995 BBC adaptation felt an important one for me, not just for television or the life of the novel. I wonder if it is comparable to the 1967 Forsyte Saga, where roads were hushed as a large part of the nation watched. I recall looking forward to Sunday evenings that autumn, fighting for the TV from housemates, and even – to one of their shock – missing evening church to see it. My love for it united me with several new but quite disparate friends, as other adaptations have, and I have enjoyed seeing it many times since.

I don’t recall thinking that the 6 part television series was perfect, for it has always seemed theatrically camp. I am no longer of the opinion that books should never have changes or cuts when adapted; I am a writer and adapter myself. I had considered P and P to be hard to condense as Austen does not waste, but I found her dialogue often pompous and not all of her scenes are needed. I felt less cross with the atmospheric 2005 version having to cut down to feature length and wondered at how the story could have been padded out in 1995 to nearly six hours.

Andrew Davies says in the BBC companion book that he’s a ‘show don’t tell’ writer – a tired little phrase in the world of screenplays. But he is not, as there are several scenes I felt unnecessary; and he had talking – clunky dialogue he had added – where none was required. The first few minutes are all wasted as they are things we see again. He repeats the relationship between the houses and the sisters. All Darcy and Bingley needed do on that first scene was to arrive at Netherfield and nod. It is spoilt by showing us what they look like before the Meryton Ball.

Davies has an obsession with not only the corporeal qualities of the characters, but in sexual ones. Every vivacity to him comes down to a very physical sexual desire or repression of one, which is tedious. He began a later Austen TV drama with a sex scene which never made sense; and he is recorded as saying that he wanted to do Tipping the Velvet because it’s ‘filthy’ and wanted to put a kinky lesbian scene on the screen. This latter comment caused more rumpus than the five years of build up to the allegedly bodice ripping Pride and Prejudice, making a touching coming of age story into a deviant romp for dirty old men and tabloids. I question whether any of these are men’s stories – especially not Sarah Water’s same sex romance; but Austen too seems to me the province of women.

I had long wondered at how a book could be popular in our time when the most dramatic plot turn involves a morality that is long past. Austen seems to join Lizzie and Darcy in being shocked by Lydia’s elopement and validating the wider strictures and censure that her behaviour brings. I felt the same of Wives and Daughters, when Cynthia and Molly’s character are put in danger by being seen alone with a man. How can Austen be seen as feminist when her females are always getting sick, nervous, and needing smelling salts over the slightest problem, and whose delicate virtue is tacitly assented to, never challenged?

I am now left in a place of dis-ease, with this old friend ebbing. For I know that my disappointment and criticisms of the adaptations now come down to the fact that I no longer believe in their source material. I am particularly critical of the portrayal of Lydia and Wickham. The BBC’s Pride and Prejudice is watchable due to Jennifer Ehle and Julia Sawalha’s being Lydia, though she is too old for the role and too exaggerated to compensate. It is amazing that the woman who plays sensible, principled Dorcas Lane was once also one of literature’s most irresponsible, thoughtful females.

My overall view is that this supposed drama has a silliness attributed to the younger sisters Bennet.

The Austen adaptation I now enjoy most is the most controversial, and allegedly least like the book, where a Canadian lesbian takes on the English subject and shows us poverty as well as aristocracy, that takes on the slave trade, and allows the shock of adultery into a modernised version, entwined with Austen’s biography, shatters the ideas of bland respectability and gives Mansfield Park a power and point that no other has.

 

Published originally on Bookstove and an altered version in Jane Austen’s Regency World Nov/Dec 2010. Some changes have been made – eg I have now familiar with Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility.

 

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